The Unintended Consequences of Organic

After I launched this blog, one of my very best friends reminded me that the reason lots of moms make the choices they do, including buying organic, is because they’re trying to do their very best to reduce their children’s exposure to chemicals they see as harmful. She said, “If you can reduce their exposure just a little bit, doesn’t that make sense?”

I agree – it makes perfect sense.  Sometimes.

I’m no different than any other parent. I want to minimize my kids’ risk, I want them to be safe, and I hope that I’m making good, informed choices. One of the most difficult parts of being a parent is bearing the burden of making decision for someone’s long-term future without any input from them. I find that overwhelming at times; it’s scary thinking you might make the wrong choices.

What some people don’t appreciate, though, is that the choices we make have far-reaching effects.  While this is true to some extent in many contexts, this is especially true with food.

on the tractor-1

For many things, like avoiding sun exposure, the only people impacted by your decisions are you and your family. But with food, you’re impacting the entire agricultural system, from the marketers who are trying to say things on the package that consumers might want to hear, to the breeders who make selections based on what they think consumers want, to the people across the world who just want food at all. When you vote for organic with your pocketbook, it impacts a connected system that we share on a global level. Agriculture relies on our shared, finite resources like water and land.

This is where the challenge of making decisions becomes even harder, because sometimes what seems like a no-brainer turns out to be more complicated. The only way to solve it, I think, is to properly evaluate the risk against the benefit. People are willing to take extreme risks with their safety when they can experience a clear benefit. For example, one of the biggest risks we take every day is getting into a car. According to the CDC, accidents or unintentional injuries is the fifth leading cause of death in the United Sates. Motor vehicle accidents make up the largest part of that category; more than 33,000 people died in a motor vehicle accident in 2010. Yet most of us strap our kids into a car almost every single day. We take that risk because we can see a clear benefit.  As consumers, we don’t see the benefit of conventional farming, but we think we can identify a risk, so it seems easy to make that choice.

The benefit is there, but we just might not see it. Conventional farming yields 25 percent more, on average, than organic farming. That means for every acre of land that’s farmed organically, we could be feeding a quarter more people if we used conventional methods. Not only that, but organic farming reduces the efficiency of all the inputs required to grow food: water, fertilizer, pesticides (yes, organic farmers also use pesticide), and fuel (to plant, manage, harvest and to transport the food).

If we had infinite resources this wouldn’t be an issue, but we don’t, and it is an issue. The amount of land that we commit to agriculture is shrinking as our population grows. The FAO projects our population will grow by one third between 2009 and 2050 and predicts we’ll need to raise food production by about 70 percent over that time. This feat will take all the tools we have, and that includes technology. I’m not saying that organic farming doesn’t have a place in that, it surely does. Having the choice to buy organic is a luxury in the United States, and I’m OK with having choices. But we need to be encouraging the overall system to be sustainable and efficient; using the fewest resources necessary to responsibly get the most out of every acre. If a farmer can do that, but doesn’t qualify for “USDA certified organic,” we should be voting for that.

When the choices that we make at the supermarket start a movement that impacts those in other parts of the world who don’t really have the luxury of choice, I’m not OK with it. There are farmers in India that really don’t have the luxury of farming organically; they need every bushel to feed their family. There are starving people in Africa that would love to have our conventionally farmed produce, because it would be food to feed mouths.

I can’t complete this post without harping on another fact: let’s acknowledgecarrots and zucchini-1 the fact that organic farmers also use pesticide. They use organic pesticides, but they’re still pesticides. Classifying a pesticide as “organic” does not mean that pesticide is harmless or even safe.  As with any pesticide, what matters is how much residue is present compared to how toxic that residue is. You simply cannot grow crops without controlling weeds and bugs – any backyard gardener knows this. My first year gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I lost an entire head of romaine lettuce literally overnight to slugs because I didn’t know I had to apply slug repellent.  I’m working on a more in-depth story on organic pesticides, so stay tuned for that, but remember that organic is not equivalent to pesticide-free.

I empathize with parents who choose organic because they’re trying to avoid exposure to pesticide. I understand what you’re aiming to do, but the benefit to your family (if any) doesn’t outweigh the risk to the global food supply. As I outlined in a previous post, there isn’t a real risk when you eat conventional produce, but there is a real benefit: efficiency in the use of our shared resources. And the availability and affordability of food for our children, our children’s children, and children in other parts of the world you will never meet but should probably care about, is a clear benefit.

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8 Responses to The Unintended Consequences of Organic

  1. This is a most profound post.
    I don’t think most folks understand the scope of food needed around the globe. …and they have no idea that the buzzwords do not mean what they imagine.
    We are very small producers, we sell our product directly to the consumer and at one time we were even certified organic. However, we would be foolish to think that every grower throughout the world should follow our example.
    The very fact that we have choice is what fuels the organic vs. conventional debate. Rather than simply being thankful for food to put on the table (like very much of the rest of the world) our society has turned food choice into yet another contentious argument to prove our own self-worth.
    I just started following your blog. I’ll be back!

  2. As you’ve indicated, these issues can be very complicated. Yields cannot be considered the only measure of success, sustainability, or efficiency. I give my perspective here:

  3. Well written. I see many posts from the agriculture side that get very technical regarding yields, fertilizers and pesticides that make it hard for the non-farmers to follow. It saddens me that so many Moms reach for the organic label but really have no idea about the far reaching effects of that choice. Quite often conventional foods are safer to eat and the more sustainable choice. Throw in the complicated story of GMOs and the benefits they can provide to long term food security and lowering the amounts of pesticides and (more harmful)chemicals used and as a society we are completely missing the chance to make the right choices. I am looking forward to your post about organic pesticides. I have been working on a similar story ever since I read that 2 of the top 3 pesticides are used in both conventional and organic farming in California. Meaning if you buy California strawberries there is a good chance that the organic and conventional ones are the exact same thing, someone is just charging you more. We all want to do the best for our children but we really have to take a scientific look at what is best for the planet as well.

    • With all due respect, Angela, there is zero evidence to suggest any difference between organic and conventional food with respect to food safety. Safety risks are common to all types of food, and it’s the responsibility of everyone in the food chain, from farmers to consumers, to ensure those risks are minimized.
      The organic pesticide story is certainly a complicated one (and let me join to crowd saying I’ve got a post planned). But in regard to strawberries in particular, before claiming equivalence, please do some research into the standard soil fumigation practices in conventional strawberries, methyl bromide in particular, and its impact on farm workers and the environment. As you and others have mentioned, our food choices impact far more than our personal health!

  4. Steven

    I’d like to encourage anyone concerned or interested in the food chain and it’s universal impacts to consider reading a bit of Michael Pollan starting with ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’.
    I’ll admit to being Sara’s ‘buy local’ Dad, and I’m completely fed up with the industrial food chain and all the uncertainty it heaps upon us as consumers. I shouldn’t have to do hours of research for each vegetable to figure out what’s on it, which is ‘safer’, and how was each produced.
    To describe conventional growing/production of anything in our industrial food chain as sustainable exemplifies the ignorance of the average consumer these days. Conventional ag production prioritizes highest yield of mostly single type over all other factors. The pesticide and fertilizer loading are exclusively linked to raising yields.
    If you’d like to know what actual sustainable farming can and should be like check out
    If we want safer and better quality food we need to support smaller local farming methods and let those local growers know that we’ll choose them when they use sustainable practices.

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  7. Dr. Anders

    I just finished reading your post from 2014. “The Unintended Consequences of Organic…” Technology will not save the human race. Technology is developed to both help and destroy. It will always do both intentionally and unintentionally. An example is computer guided missiles to destroy anything that seems like a good idea at the time. Machines help assemble the missiles and GMO scientists feed the workers with GMOSs cheaply and effectively. Thanks to tech there are many examples of this duality etc. etc. etc….. but the ultimate function is destruction fueled by prosperity. So both will increase and neither is an inherent problem. Though it may be when you are in the path of the missile.

    It is apparent that you have worked for BigAgChemCo and enjoy working to justify it and you make some good points. I like your bit on arctic apples and I relish stomping on the opinions of the ignorant as much as the next person.

    You champion the tech and the chems for all the good they do. But remember they also support the bad from which we will all suffer. Perhaps someday soon seeing as “WWIII” is fast approaching not to mention climate shift.

    You will never be free of the GMO/Chemical/BigAg critics. Nor will you ever be free from the fate of your fellow man. Though maybe you will make some money with this cute website and feel better about it all.

    Goodluck and kind regards,
    Tim Anders

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